Low ridership, high fares: COVID nudging BMTC into vicious circle

With BMTC reducing its services since COVID's onset last year, many informal sector workers are spending a lot more to access their workplaces.

Afeena, a domestic worker, does not commute by BMTC bus anymore. Ever since COVID’s onset, bus services to her workplace has reduced so much that she is forced to either walk nearly 4 km or hire an autorickshaw every day. The recent BMTC staff strike cut off public transport in the city, but even before this, many loyal BMTC commuters had been affected after the corporation reduced its services due to COVID-induced revenue losses.

According to the data BMTC shared with this reporter, in March end (before the staff strike), BMTC was running only 5,320 buses out of its fleet of around 6,500. The number of routes and schedules as of this March were also much lesser than pre-COVID levels. BMTC was running 1,910 routes in March – around 13% lower than the 2203 routes it used to operate before COVID, in February 2020. Similarly, the number of schedules (total trips per day) had also reduced by 13% – 5,312 this March, compared to 6,157 in February 2020.

That is, even though BMTC services significantly improved by the end of the first COVID wave, it still did not go up to pre-COVID levels. And now with the second wave, the corporation is not expected to recover financially anytime soon.

Afeena lives in New Baiyyappanahalli, which lies behind Swami Vivekananda Metro Station, about 1 km away from the main OMR (Old Madras Road). Hers is a classic case of being impacted by BMTC’s gradual cut in services over the years. Up till 5-6 years ago, BMTC operated a direct service along the internal road she lived in. But with the construction of the Metro station, buses could no longer maneuver easily here, and the route was stopped. Since then, she walks 1 km to the OMR and takes a direct bus to her workplace, near Domlur flyover, almost 3 km away. She used to spend a total of Rs 30 on commute per day at the time.

But over year ago, even before COVID struck, BMTC stopped this direct route, says Afeena. She then started taking two buses to work – one from the bus stop near SV Road Metro station to Binnamangala, and from there, another to Domlur. “Sometimes the wait time for the second bus from Binnamangala would be too long, so I’d have to walk to Indiranagar KFC and then board the bus. This was already difficult,” Afeena says, “But with Covid, even the first bus from the Metro station to Binnamangala is difficult to find now. Now the wait time for this first bus is 30 minutes or even more. I have to get to work at 9 am, and my employers scold me if I arrive late. So now I either walk or hire an auto,” she says.

A previous surgery makes it difficult for Afeena to take the nearly one-hour walk to work. Share autos are also more expensive now. Afeena says, “They charge more, and don’t allow in more than two women saying there’s Covid. Also, there are not enough domestic workers to take a shared auto to Domlur because many have lost work.” Hence she takes a regular auto trip, which costs her Rs 70 one way. “On the way back, I walk some distance and then hire an auto, which costs me Rs 50. So most days, I spend Rs 120 on commute,” she says.

Afeena now spends almost four times of what she used to spend on commute until a few years ago. This is a double blow because with COVID, her monthly income has also reduced drastically from Rs 11,000 to Rs 7,000, since she is no longer employed by the two households where she used to do part-time work.

M Saritha, a field activist who works on the issues of informal sector workers at the NGO FEDINA (Foundation for Educational Innovations in Asia), is also from New Baiyappanahalli, and has to travel to multiple locations for field work. “Along OMR, there are still many buses that start from Hoskote and go to major destinations like Shivajinagar and KR Market. But there are not enough buses to areas like Indiranagar. The wait time is 30-45 minutes, and workers are worried they will lose jobs if they don’t reach on time.”

Bus services were reduced in loss-making routes, says BMTC MD C Shikha. Pic Credit: Prajwal N

She says that many categories of informal sector workers have been affected by the shortage of bus services with COVID. “They are spending large amounts from their wages for transport. Women workers are more affected because they usually use buses for non-work purposes also – such as dropping children to school, travelling for household-related chores, etc. Male construction workers, for example, may have other transport options to get to work – like travelling in the vehicle provided by their mestri, using their own bicycle, or sharing two-wheelers.” Saritha says senior citizens are also more affected by the bus shortage since many with low incomes use buses to get to hospitals.

Geetha Menon of the Domestic Workers Rights Union has also been finding fewer buses to commute to her office. “I need to take three buses. Since COVID, the overall wait time is much higher, especially in the non-peak hours. Even then, these buses would be running almost empty.” Geetha says the wait time would be even more for those who wait for through buses. “I have a bus pass. But for people without a pass, multiple trips would be more expensive and they may wait a longer time for a through bus.”

Geetha says the fall in incomes is also driving more low-income commuters away from BMTC. “For domestic workers, the workplace is usually at a walkable distance. But many who used to work 3 or 5 km away from home, find BMTC’s high ticket fares less affordable now as their incomes have reduced. So they walk or hire share autos,” says Geetha.

Farida Banu, a garment factory worker, says the number of buses in her commute route don’t seem to have reduced, but that she wished BMTC’s fares were lower.

C Shikha, Managing Director at BMTC, says, “We have cut down buses in routes where demand is low and our losses are high. For example, we have reduced buses during off-peak hours in the afternoon, and in IT corridors since most are now working from home.” Services have been ensured during peak hours and in key employment corridors, “but there will be some shortage overall because of the reduction in routes,” she adds.

She says travel patterns have kept changing with COVID, and hence BMTC has been following a dynamic process of modifying routes and schedules. “With the COVID second wave, travel patterns are changing again, and it will take some time to stabilise.”

BMTC’s situation likely to worsen this year

During the COVID lockdown last year, BMTC ferried only frontline workers. The rise in ridership has been painfully slow since then. BMTC’s ridership pre-COVID was around 35 lakh per day. As per news reports earlier this year, ridership had risen only to 20 lakh. Ridership revenue usually covers the majority of BMTC’s operating costs. But since COVID, reduced ridership as well as the continued increase in fuel prices have been pushing BMTC into losses. As per a Bangalore Mirror report this March, BMTC was making losses of more than Rs 1 crore per day.

Shikha is optimistic though. “In March, the ridership had increased to 25 lakh. We expect the same pattern of first wave to follow this year also. Once the second wave is over, we expect ridership to come back to normal.” But this would mean at least another year of severe losses for BMTC.

Read more: How should BMTC buses be run now, given social distancing challenges?

Pawan Mulukutla, Director, Electric Mobility at WRI (World Resources Institute) India, says, “Earlier there was an expectation that ridership will return to pre-COVID levels by March 2021, but this has not happened. And now with the second wave, there will be even lesser use of buses – only essential services will be allowed, exams have been postponed, and people will go out only for work. So at least until next summer, ridership will not be back to pre-COVID levels.”

Losing core ridership

In February, Transport Minister Laxman Savadi had hinted that BMTC fares may be increased, but there has been no decision on this yet. BMTC’s fares are already among the highest in the country, to the extent that two-wheelers are a cheaper option than buses in Bengaluru.

Given the pressure on BMTC to be a profit-making entity, it has often resorted to slashing routes that make losses. But transport experts say that the reduction of services, along with the already high ticket fares, is getting BMTC into a vicious circle of low ridership and revenues. BMTC’s key ridership is low-income groups who don’t have other transport options to get to work. But with reduction in services, this group of riders – as in the case of Afeena – may likely shift to other modes which would further reduce BMTC’s ridership revenues.

When asked about commuters affected by the reduction in services, Shikha says BMTC is planning to launch a feedback mechanism so that users can communicate their bus service requirements. The corporation is also planning to introduce smaller buses that can act as feeder buses in local roads, she says.

[Given the increasing fuel costs and reduced ridership during Covid, how can BMTC sustain its services from now? What could be some ways to increase revenue, and what is the corporation planning? We explore this in Part 2 of this series]

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